‘Titanic’ and the Art of Historical Narrative

Last weekend, I celebrated Valentine’s Day by going to see the 25th-anniversary theatrical release of Titanic in 3D. Reader, I had a blast. And that movie stuck to me. I keep thinking about it this week.

Among other things, I was impressed with the brilliance of the storytelling on a structural level. Yes, the framing story is absurd and the love story is juvenile; the moral is cheesy; the dialogue is quotably corny, and this damages some of the actors’ performances; and the runtime is well over three hours. But the narrative is tight, propulsive, and genuinely heartbreaking.

Consider what a remarkable thing that is.

The wreck on the sea floor in 2004 (photo from NOAA/IFE/URI; public domain)

The audience knows almost exactly how the ship will sink. The framing narrative reveals the fate of at least one protagonist before anything happens. Even some of the dialogue has been heard almost verbatim in previous movies because it comes from historical accounts.

From the start, this is a story in which almost no surprises are possible. Titanic’s success looks like a psychological impossibility.

And that’s why historical storytellers, including history teachers, should study it. We can benefit from understanding why this movie works as we tell other familiar true stories.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve come up with so far.

A little mystery goes a long way.

Before it’s a disaster tale and a love story, Titanic is a mildly interesting mystery about a diamond necklace. That’s how the movie draws us in; that’s how the writer-director stitches several plotlines together; and that’s how we get an ending that doesn’t just leave us bobbing in the Atlantic.

The fictional Heart of the Ocean necklace is as brazen a MacGuffin as Hollywood has ever invented. It’s deliciously cynical. And it works.

When the movie starts, we already know what happened to the ship, and we need a reason to meet the main characters at all. The Heart of the Ocean poses just enough of a problem to get us watching, carry us through the rest of the story, and bring us safely out the other side.

Small nonfiction mysteries can be similarly effective in historical accounts. Humans love puzzles. Even a tiny one can rivet our attention. And history is full of real details that can serve as puzzles to draw us into and carry us through larger stories.

Speaking of jewelry ….

Material culture matters.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that James Cameron was obsessed with historical detail. (That doesn’t mean he took no dramatic license or made no errors.) Long before the movie was released, it was already famous for obscene cost overruns, doubling its original budget.

Now, I’m not going to tell you Titanic succeeds because the Grand Staircase curves just right or because Rose’s afternoon suit comes straight out of a 1912 fashion magazine. But throughout the film, material culture provides viewers with key information about social relationships and mindsets. The audience is continuously “reading” these signs, whether consciously or unconsciously, to make sense of the behavior of the characters.

When we put together a true historical narrative in a classroom, similarly, physical and visual artifacts can provide audiences with excellent opportunities to grasp larger social truths.

Speaking of physical objects ….

Chekhov’s Gun has to be hung on the wall in the first place.

Many historical narrators know the dictum attributed to Anton Chekhov: a rifle hanging on the wall in one act of a play must be fired before the play is over. “Chekhov’s Gun” expresses a principle of narrative economy: a story must not include details at random.

But when you’re building a story, it may be more important to understand the principle in reverse. If you want a gun to go off, you’ve got to find someplace to put it in the earlier parts of the story. That, too, is critical for narrative tightness.

Titanic puts on a master class in this form of Chekhov’s principle. Though a famously sprawling film, it’s also highly disciplined. The Heart of the Ocean is one example of a Chekhov’s Gun. In another case, the object in play is an actual gun, a handgun; we see it long before it fires. (It becomes almost a second MacGuffin.) In another instance, the Chekhov’s Gun is the vulgar art of spitting, which will have an unexpected use later. In my favorite example, it’s an officer’s whistle. A tertiary character frantically blows a whistle in one context, and, in a deeply satisfying surprise, it turns out—well, hey, I won’t spoil that for you.

Historical narrators can hang up nonfictional Chekhov’s Guns, too. That’s much easier than a new teacher may think, in fact, because a lot of the work has already been done for us in resources like standard history textbooks. All it takes is our knowing that a certain detail or concept is likely to become very important later (next week, next unit, whenever). If we find some excuse to make a little space for it now, then later, when that detail comes into play, attentive audiences can enjoy the thrill of being rewarded for their attention.

This is a very effective storytelling move, and it’s also a very good pedagogical move because it represents spaced repetition.

Speaking of space ….

Geography, chronology, and mechanisms matter.

Leaving the theater last weekend, I mused on the verisimilitude of the film. If it were made today—in the age of entirely digital sets and physically impossible action sequences—I’m certain Titanic would be less satisfying.

It’s not just that the nearly life-sized set and 17-million-gallon immersion tank look more convincing than CGI models would. It’s also that James Cameron took care to place his characters in a realistic space with a realistic space’s narrative constraints.

For much of the movie, the protagonists and other characters are careening through corridors, lounges, and staterooms in a growing panic, while crew members fumble with agonizingly complicated tackle as they try to fill and lower lifeboats. Electrical and mechanical systems fail unpredictably, or else remain operable because of specific actions by the crew. We don’t just hear about those famous watertight bulkheads; we see them, in the form of terrifying guillotine doors in the engine room. Some sections of the ship swarm with people, but others are virtually empty, for realistically non-obvious reasons. (This becomes a major plot point as the movie’s pair of villains scheme to get off the ship on their own terms.)

As I think somebody remarked on this week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour episode, we intuitively know, without needing to verify, that James Cameron sat down with ship schematics and a timeline of the sinking to plot plausible action from room to room and deck to deck. Most of us don’t know exactly how the real ship was laid out, but we trust that the writer-director did, even if he must often have taken liberties with it.

In short, this Titanic feels like a real ship, not the idea of a ship. It’s a physical thing stuck in spacetime, obeying rules.

Historical narrators often face temptations similar to those in Hollywood. We want to take shortcuts to the idea of a thing, disregarding how it would actually emerge and work in the world. We want to be able to wave a magic wand and—poof—have a revolution occur, or a presidency, or a century of social change, because that’s just what revolutions, presidencies, or social change do: they occur. Or we want to explore topics thematically in such an anachronistic way that temporal cause and effect seem to reverse. Or we want to conflate entirely different social phenomena under a post-hoc category like “religion” or “power” or “economic life.” Or we want to reduce an entire person’s lifetime or an entire generation’s experience to a single moment.

Believe me, this is a self-criticism.

Unlike Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, of course, we don’t have the ability to recreate an event in real time. We almost always have to engage in extreme compression. So there’s a limit to the amount of explanation we can provide for why things happened the way they did.

But we can at least try to acknowledge real spacetime in our historical accounts. We can admit that longer causal explanations are necessary even if we don’t have time to deliver them now. We can point out that historical agents had their own reasons for their behavior. We can pause to examine local microcosms of larger experiences. We can point out some of the constraints that account for the way the action unfolded.

And we can try to remember that no human ever knows the ending or meaning of their own story in advance. We all live in our own present.

Finally, with that in mind ….

Known endings don’t have to be cheap endings.

Again, we all know the famous ship is going to sink. If we somehow didn’t before, the movie tells us that repeatedly. One character even tells us how long it will take. Then the movie reminds us about that later.

Emotionally speaking, therefore, it would have been very easy to screw up the ending of this movie.

The movie solves that problem partly by focusing on a small number of specific characters, whose fates are not all known ahead of time. As it turns out, people tend to care about people—not in the aggregate, but as people. As with a mystery, a little humanity can go a long way.

But there’s another way the movie solves the problem. The ship goes down, and then the film … keeps going. Specifically, Titanic shows us a horrifying aspect of the historical event that we may not have thought about much before. Countless survivors made it off the ship even after missing the lifeboats. Then, in a matter of about twenty minutes, almost all of them died in the water, sometimes within earshot of rescue.

That turns a familiar catastrophe into something really haunting. That choice, I believe, is responsible by itself for a great deal of the movie’s stickiness with audiences.

By keeping the story at a human level, and following the humanness of its subjects to the end rather than pulling back, Titanic avoids a cheap ending, at least in the historical portion of the film.

This, too, is something tellers of nonfiction history can do. Instead of ending a story with a headline, we can end it with humans being humans.